In 1972, Fairport Convention released a greatest hits album whose cover attempted to trace the history–let us not say genealogy–of the band and the pathways followed by members who left the fold somewhere between 1967 and 1972.
There are seven iterations of Fairport documented in this family tree, and the biggest side branch, sprung in late 1968, belongs to Ashley Hutchings, the band’s original bass player. According to the legend, he lasted through Fairports 1 through 3, and then departed to become a founding member of Steeleye Span and to work with his wife, Shirley Collins.
About two and half years after his departure from Fairport Convention, and following his short stint with Steeleye Span, Hutchings headed off in a new direction with bells on, so to speak. Morris On was a group of musicians, many of them alums of other Hutchings projects, devoted to English folk/village dance music traditions–the morris dance and its varieties.
And then, at the very bottom of the chart that graced the cover of Fairport Convention: The History of Fairport Convention, was a notice of the appearance of a new band, whose first album was at that time being recorded. In keeping with the mitosis and mutation reflected in the family tree, the band’s lineup would change by the time recording was completed and the album released. Fittingly, the pattern of recombinant DNA established there would persist for decades to come. The Albion Country Band would become the Albion Dance Band, and the Albion Band, and somewhere along the way came the birth of Son of Morris On. Along the road Hutchings became the music master of the BBC costume drama Lark Rise to Candleford, which in turn led to the Lark Rise Band.
Of all these permutations over the years, the first recorded appearance of the Albion Country Band, Battle of the Field (recorded in 1973 but not released until 1976), has remained my favorite. Like most of Hutchings’s line-ups, this is a meeting of the superstars of British folk: Hutchings on bass, Martin Carthy on acoustic guitar, Simon Nicol on other guitars and an electric dulcimer, John Kirkpatrick on a variety of accordions, Roger Swallow on drums, and Sue Harris on oboe and hammered dulcimer.
The nine tracks, which include a few medleys, are arranged to feel like a musical revue of sorts, a celebration on the village green to which all are invited. Indeed, the opener, “Albion Sunrise,” is a classic calling-on song, a come-all-ye to join the merriment and celebrate the ups and downs of the English countryside:
It was in me father’s fathers time they knew a rolling air And the Albion Boys will show you how they sang it everywhere And if you come along with us you’re numbered as a friend And the faded flower of England will rise and bloom again
To get the crowd a-stamping, a medley of dance tunes follows, introduced by Kirkpatrick’s concertina and livened by Harris rollicking oboe treatments. In the middle of the medley, Carthy sings an unaccompanied lament for serial cuckoldry that announces the theme of unhappy love that will run through much of the album, and metaphorically captures the struggles of the farmer as he ekes out his difficult living.
Oh so selfish runs the hare and so cunning runs the fox Who would think that this little calf would grow to a noble ox To live among the briars and to run among the thorns And die the death that his father did with a large pair of horns
And so runs the course of true love and false love. There’s the young husband of “I Was a Young Man,” who returns from chasing his errant sheep across cold and muddy fields to find his lazy wife “Lying in the bed / The fire out beside her / She says, young man, is the kettle on.” Trapped in his loveless marriage, he still fares better than the miller’s apprentice of “Hanged I Shall Be,” a fate he brings upon himself by drowning his betrothed.
But marital discord wasn’t the only problem farmers faced. From the fifteenth century onwards, a series of “Enclosure Acts” gradually turned open land into private property, reducing the acreage available for subsistence farming and restricting access to the fruits of the hunt. The latter problem is recorded in a whole genre of songs about the fates of those caught poaching, one of which, “The Gallant Poacher” is included on The Battle of the Field.
Indeed, “the battle of the field” is itself the term used to describe the ongoing loss of arable land available to the agricultural class in Britain during this period. It was a problem exacerbated by another shift in demographics that occurred in the nineteenth century.
Between the census of 1801 and that of 1851, the population of Britain almost doubled, from ten to twenty million. This was the opening of the modern industrial age, and many of those who had once earned their living off the land were forced to leave the Albion Countryside for the factories of the cities. In “The New Saint George” the call to the impossible return to the rural life is never the less heartily sounded.
The fish and fowl are ailing,
The farmer’s life is failing,
Where are all your backroom boys?
Your backroom boys won’t save us now!
We’re poisoned by the greedy,
Who plunder on the needy:
Leave the factory, leave the forge,
And dance to the new St. George!
If The Battle of the Field chronicles these woes, it is not entirely a grim affair. After all, much of the music that Hutchings set out to preserve through the various incarnations of the Albion Band was the celebration of village life and the music and dance that organized recreation and community in the face of hardship. There are the tunes of the “Morris Medley” near the beginning of the album, and midway through, “Cheshire Rounds / The Old Lancashire Hornpipe.” Led once more by Sue Harris’ oboe and John Kirkpatrick’s accordion, these are fast, rollicking tunes that summon up the image of high-stepping lads and lasses swirling gaily across a festive green.
The album’s penultimate song, Reaphook and Sickle, is another calling-on song, one that exhorts the lads and lasses to join in the labor of the harvest, and to rejoice not only in the job well done but also in the fruits of that labor, most especially in the form of fermented crops. And what comes with ale, of course, is courage … the reap and scrape before it became the slap and tickle.
Now come all you lads and lasses
and together let us go
Into some pleasant cornfield
our courage for to show.
With the good old leathern bottle
and the beer it shall be brown.
We’ll reap and scrape together
until Bright Phoebus does go down.
This harvest dance is the culmination of the agricultural cycle, the end of the growing year, and for the Albion Country Band, the end of the show–it’s the successful conclusion, a victory in the battle of the field. It is followed by brief instrumental coda–you can imagine the band coming back to center stage to takes its bows.
This tune that brings the album to a close is called “Battle of the Somme.” I puzzled over this one for a long time: what connection could there be between these two battles, of the field and the Somme?
Perhaps I’m being a bit fanciful in my ultimate interpretation here, but I think that the notion of British lads heading out into the fields “our courage for to show” (see the lyrics to “Reaphook and Sickle” above) demonstrates a connection of sorts. The Battle of the Somme, which began in July 1916, was planned to be a combined French and British offensive against the German line, but the French troops had been diverted to Verdun earlier in the year and it was left to the British to lead the engagement. British losses were horrendous, probably the worst in the history of warfare, but in the end they prevailed—if anyone can be said to be a victor under such circumstances. Are there echoes of “The New St George” here? (“Your backroom boys won’t save us now!”) Is this a celebration of a new Saint George, the British soldier beating back the encroaching dragon, a populist hero who survived the Reformation in the hearts of Englishmen? The Great War changed England as drastically and dramatically as the Industrial Revolution left old values in tatters. But one thing abides and it is this: the enduring spirit of an England that animates every note of the Battle of the Field.